Georgia Power service cutoffs rising since end of COVID-19 moratorium

ATLANTA – The number of Georgia Power customers who have had their service disconnected for nonpayment is rising steadily since the state Public Service Commission (PSC) lifted a pandemic-driven temporary moratorium on disconnections in July.

In a document filed with the PSC this week, Georgia Power reported pulling the plug on 26,504 customers last month, up from 24,929 in August and 15,223 in July.

The company also reported that in September, 364 customers failed to comply with a pay-by-installment plan Georgia Power has been offering ratepayers. That represented a significant increase from the 40 failed installment plans the previous month, while only one installment plan failed in July.

Service disconnection was among the issues that came up earlier this week when two Republican members of the PSC seeking reelection debated their Democratic challengers.

Democrat Robert Bryant of Savannah, who is opposing GOP incumbent Commissioner Jason Shaw, criticized the PSC for lifting the moratorium while the pandemic was still raging.

Shaw pointed out that it was he who made the motion in March that led the commission to impose the temporary moratorium.

“We have the tough balance of protecting those who are most vulnerable but protecting all ratepayers,” he said. “When we lifted the moratorium in July, we put in delayed payment plans.”

Under Georgia Power’s delayed-payment plan, customers who sign up for the program will be able to pay past-due balances through March with no late fees.

Meeting growing demand for broadband in rural Georgia tough task

ATLANTA – Rural Georgians from business owners to teachers to elected officials know one of the region’s biggest challenges is inadequate internet connectivity, particularly amid a pandemic that is forcing people to stay home.

But the lack of population density in rural areas and high rates of poverty are combining to make extending high-speed broadband service into rural communities a daunting task.

The General Assembly passed legislation in June aiming to use Georgia’s 41 electric membership corporations (EMCs) as the vehicle for addressing the problem.

House Bill 244 is a follow-up to a bill lawmakers enacted last year that authorized EMCs to enter the broadband business for the first time. Under this year’s legislation, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) will decide how much EMCs can charge telecom providers for broadband attachments to their utility poles.

A dispute between the EMCs and providers over pole attachment fees has been a key obstacle in the way of delivering broadband to rural communities. It’s a standoff policy makers say rural Georgia can no longer afford.

“COVID has shown the vulnerability of these folks who have to stay home from school and the businesses that can’t expand,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, chief sponsor of House Bill 244. “If they don’t have broadband, they might as well not have power.”

Some progress is being made on the rural broadband front. Comcast announced a $9 million investment in June to expand its internet services to nearly 8,000 homes and businesses in Haralson and Carroll counties in West Georgia.

Carroll EMC launched broadband after a feasibility study showed that two-thirds of its members didn’t have it, said Tim Martin, CEO of Carroll EMC.

“We started looking for partners,” he said. “We found a local broadband provider, Global Telecom, that committed to us because they live here and know the need.”

Martin said the local schools are particularly anxious to get broadband service because of the pandemic.

“They couldn’t even do virtual school,” he said. “They had to send packets of work home.”

Martin said the project wouldn’t have been possible without a $12.5 million federal grant, and that’s been the rub.

Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of Georgia EMC, the trade association representing the local EMCs, said the sparse populations of rural communities in Georgia make broadband deployment into those areas difficult.

“Our density per mile is around 10 customers on average,” he said.

On top of that, many of the people who live in rural areas are poor, Chastain said.

“No matter how bad they might like to have [broadband], they can’t afford it,” he said.

Another barrier to rural broadband deployment is that the Georgia EMCs are charging telecom providers $20 per pole per year on average for broadband attachments, well above the average of about $7 per pole set by the Federal Communications Commission.

While the EMCs say they can’t afford to extend broadband into many rural communities even at the $20 rate, providers say such a high rate makes it hard for telecom companies to justify investing in broadband service to rural areas.

Michael Power, CEO of the Georgia Cable Association, said the list of states that have adopted the FCC rate for pole attachments includes regional neighbors Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

“We believe if the PSC adopts a true cost-based formula, the EMCs will receive a pole rate that fairly compensates them,” he said. “We think this is the right approach.”

Power said the EMCs could lower the pole attachment rates to $7 per pole and make up the difference from what they’re charging now by adding only 50 cents to their average customer’s monthly bill.

But Chastain said it’s not that simple. He said the amount EMCs would have to raise customer bills would vary widely among the 41 individual companies, which face different economic circumstances.

For example, In the area served by Reidsville-based Canoochee EMC, the population density is only eight customers per mile, making extending broadband more expensive than in more densely populated communities.

Annual per-capita income in the area is only $19,000, said Lou Ann Phillips, CEO of Canoochee EMC.

“Our schools and medical services are suffering because we don’t have [broadband],” she said. “[But] our [feasibility] study says it’s going to cost $53 million. Where’s it going to come from?”

The EMCs and telecom companies will get a chance to argue their cases on pole attachment rates before the PSC in hearings set for next month.

“We’re going to bring a lot of facts and history to the table and evidence to show that a majority of states … did in fact adopt the FCC formula or something close to it,” Power said.

“We’re going to show what the cost is to put the pole in the ground and the cost to maintain the pole,” Chastain said. “All we want to do is recover the fair cost of [the providers] using our facilities.”

The PSC is scheduled to decide pole attachment rates in mid-December. The new rates then would take effect next July 1.

Ossoff sets quarterly fundraising record for Senate candidate from Georgia

Democrat Jon Ossoff (left) is looking to unseat U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

ATLANTA – Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff raised more than $21.3 million during the third quarter in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. David Perdue, Ossoff’s campaign reported.

That represents the largest-ever fundraising quarter for a Senate race in Georgia, according to the Ossoff campaign, and dwarfed the $7 million the Perdue campaign reported raising during July, August and September.

“With less than three weeks to go, our grassroots juggernaut is firing on all cylinders to send Jon to the U.S. Senate,” said Ellen Foster, Ossoff’s campaign manager.

Perdue campaign manager Ben Fry noted that 87% of Ossoff’s money during the third quarter came from out of state, and 26% of that was from California alone.

“While Ossoff and his allies are bankrolled by liberal billionaires from California and New York who want to use Ossoff to push a radical socialist agenda, Senator Perdue is proud to have the support of Georgians who will re-elect him for another term,” Fry said.

However, according to the Ossoff campaign, his average contribution during the quarter was only $35, while 97% of his campaign donations were for less than $100.

Most recent polls have shown the two candidates locked in a tight battle, within those polls’ margins of error.

However, a poll released this week by Quinnipiac University gave Ossoff a bit more breathing room, putting him up by 51% to 45%.

The two candidates entered the final month of the contest with about the same amount of cash on hand, just more than $8 million, according to the Perdue campaign.

Unemployment rises in Georgia but initial claims fall

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Unemployment in Georgia rose last month, but first-time unemployment claims fell significantly, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

The state’s unemployment rate in September was up 0.7% from August to 6.4%. But joblessness in Georgia remains below the national unemployment rate of 7.9%.

Meanwhile, initial unemployment claims were down 19% last month, or 45,833, to reach 201,790.

Along with fewer first-time unemployment claims, more Georgians went back to work as businesses shut down by the coronavirus pandemic continued to reopen.

During the last five months, 65% of the jobs lost have been gained back, Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday.

“We are encouraging those who have been displaced to take a look at the incredible number of career opportunities listed on EmployGeorgia that include a vast array of entry level and experienced positions of all pay grades,” he said. “Employers are looking for good candidates to fill these positions as Georgia’s economy begins to rebound.”

The labor department has processed nearly 3.9 million initial unemployment claims during the last 30 weeks, more than the last eight years combined. Those claims have generated more than $15 billion in state and federal unemployment benefits during that time.

Since mid-March, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for the most claims, with 929,912 claims filed. The health care and social assistance sector is next with 447,748 claims, followed by retail trade with 411,217.

The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume and assisting with other reemployment needs.

Gov. Kemp rolls out Washington-approved health-insurance reforms

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled a “Georgia-centric” health-care reform plan Thursday based on newly won federal approval of two waivers to expand health-insurance coverage outside the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Kemp joined Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, in signing a waiver allowing Georgia to expand Medicaid coverage to adults with incomes up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

Current law limits Medicaid eligibility in Georgia to low-income mothers and children, and to the aged, blind and disabled.

The other waiver, aimed at serving uninsured Georgians who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to receive insurance premium subsidies through the ACA, is to be signed in the coming days.

Stating the problem, Kemp said Georgia suffers from one of the nation’s highest rates of uninsured, while insurance premiums are too high and there’s a lack of competition in the private health-insurance market.

“This status quo is simply unacceptable,” the governor said in announcing the plan at the Georgia Capitol. “It threatens our families and our state’s future.”

The General Assembly passed legislation last year authorizing Kemp to pursue the two waivers. The state hired Deloitte Consulting to help develop the waiver applications, which were submitted to CMS late last year.

The Medicaid waiver will make Georgians earning up to $12,000 a year eligible to enroll in Medicaid or employer-sponsored health insurance if they spend at least 80 hours per month engaged in a “qualifying activity” Those include employment, on-the-job training, participating in job-readiness activities, vocational training, higher education or community service.

“We’re making health insurance accessible for those who need it most,” Kemp said.

The second waiver will replace the ACA’s healthcare.gov insurance enrollment website and let Georgians enroll directly with insurance carriers, local brokers or private sector web-broker sites.

Kemp said enrollment through the healthcare.gov portal has declined by 22% since 2016. He blamed the site’s cumbersome nature for the decrease.

“Healthcare.gov has fundamentally failed Georgians,” Kemp said. “The enrollment process has been nothing short of disappointing.”

The second waiver will cover Georgians earning between $12,000 and $51,000 annually.

Many Democrats voted against the Medicaid waivers legislation last year, arguing Georgia should join the majority of states that have expanded Medicaid coverage under the ACA to those making up to 138% of the federal poverty level.

But Kemp said Thursday that would be too expensive. He said the $218 million annual price tag of his Medicaid expansion plan is less than half what the state would pay under the Democrats’ proposal.

Verma praised Georgia for becoming the first state to take advantage of the unprecedented flexibility the Trump administration is offering through the health-insurance waiver process.

“We have delivered by getting Washington, D.C., out of your health care,” she said. “We have worked to empower states.”

QAnon backer Marjorie Taylor Greene endorses Kelly Loeffler for Senate

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks at the State Capitol after qualifying for the 2020 election on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler landed an endorsement Thursday from fellow Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the controversial QAnon movement and a virtual lock to win Georgia’s 14th Congressional District seat next month.

Greene, who owns a construction company, has drawn national attention for past online videos reported in the Washington Post and Politico in which she appeared to promote the anti-government conspiracy theory QAnon and dismiss the racial-justice underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter protest movement.

But on Thursday, Greene told reporters during a news conference in Paulding County she decided to endorse Loeffler because they share a determination to stop socialism.

“If [Democrats] get their way in November, our economy will be wrecked, our jobs will be lost and our country will be plunged into a socialist hellhole,” Greene said.

Greene praised Loeffler for introducing legislation to target street violence Greene linked to the left-wing political movement Antifa and to Black Lives Matter.

Greene also cited Loeffler’s support for the police and gun rights and her opposition to abortion.

“I’ve fought to protect innocent life, our God-given 2nd Amendment rights, our borders and our religious liberties,” Loeffler said. “And just like Marjorie, I’ve taken on the radical left, cancel culture and fake news media – and won.”

Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the Senate late last year to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson. She is running to retain the seat in a crowded special election field that features 20 candidates.

The Democratic Party of Georgia responded to Greene’s endorsement of Loeffler by accusing the senator of pandering to Republican voters to save her campaign. Loeffler has trailed Democrat Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in recent polls.

“Bragging about an endorsement from a candidate like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been denounced by members of her own party as ‘appalling,’ shows yet again just how out of touch Senator Loeffler is with Georgians,” The Democratic Party wrote in a statement.

Dan McLagan, campaign spokesman for U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the other leading Republican in the Senate race, was succinct in his response.

“That’s a good endorsement for Kelly,” McLagan wrote in a text message.

Recent polls have shown Collins and Loeffler in a battle for second place behind Warnock and a spot opposite the Democrat in a likely January runoff.